Restaurant operators locally and nationally watched closely in late June as Utah lawmakers voted to create 90 more liquor licenses to make up for a scarcity of permits. Gov. Gary Herbert quickly signed the legislation, which went into effect immediately.
Even though some commercial developers are worried that restaurant liquor permits will again run dry as early as next spring, David George, president of LongHorn Steakhouse, said he was impressed.
"We appreciate that the issue was addressed," said George. "It helped us to think about our long-term investment in the Utah marketplace."
LongHorn Steakhouse was among several business that snapped up more than one-third of the newly created permits the same day the governor acted. Had lawmakers not responded to calls that a lack of licenses was having an adverse effect on economic development, LongHorn and other chains might have been dissuaded or delayed in their efforts to come to Utah.
LongHorn, which operates more than 385 restaurants in 35 states, plans to open a Midvale store in December at 963 Fort Union Blvd., and locations in Ogden (647 Wall Ave.) and South Jordan (11346 River Heights Drive) in the spring.
In all, George said the chain plans to open six to eight restaurants along the Wasatch Front within the next two or three years. Each will employ 80 to 100 people. Nationally, LongHorn plans to open 44 to 48 spots with half in new markets.
Tai Biesinger, CEO of the commercial services firm Pentad Properties, points out that chains typically count on opening several restaurants when breaking into a new market, so it's difficult when they cannot rely on at least having a chance of getting revenue-producing liquor licenses when they need them. Before the 90 new permits became available in June, dozens of applicants waited in vain for months or longer because the state's quota system (based on population) was not keeping up with demand.
Buffalo Wild Wings, for example, opened a Lehi restaurant in January, then had to wait months for additional licenses to become available before the Minneapolis-based chain could begin building eateries in West Valley City, South Jordan and Riverdale.
Even with the additional permits, Utah continues to have the lowest number of alcohol outlets per 1,000 adults among states in the West, according to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.
And for chains considering the state, that's an issue.
Part of the dining experience at LongHorn, said George, is that diners are offered a full range of alcoholic beverages. Although the chain derives less than 10 percent of its total sales from liquor, a license is essential to do business.
"Our ability to provide guests with choices is critical, including beverages," said George. "Having a wide variety of beverages is an important part of what casual dining is all about."
LongHorn is part of the Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, which also operates Red Lobster and Olive Garden, including locations in Utah, as well as its fine-dining specialty restaurants The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52 and Eddie V's. Through its subsidiaries, Darden operates more than 2,000 eateries, employes 180,000 people and rings up $8 billion in sales each year.
In February, Fortune magazine rated Darden and Nordstrom as the nation's most diverse companies, with minorities making up 42 percent of their work forces. Darden also was singled out as a diversity champion because 30 percent of its managers are minorities and 41 percent are women.
Darden was named No. 2 in job growth for U.S. companies, with 5,137 workers, behind only Google's 7,020 hired in the past year.
In Utah • First location to open in Midvale this winter, Ogden and South Jordan in the spring, six to eight eateries in the next two to three years
Nationally • Operates more than 385 restaurants in 35 states, employing 18,000 people
Parent company • Darden Restaurants, which also operates Red Lobster, Olive Garden (in Utah), The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52 and Eddie V's
Hiring for LongHorn Steakhouse begins seven weeks before openings. Banners will be posted outside restaurants when the hiring period begins. Applicants may also visit http://www.longhornsteakhouse.com/employment to apply.